Befriend Your Peers, But Don’t Hire Your Friends

Friends forever!

A while ago, I read an interesting blog post by Monica Valentinelli. It was primarily interesting because it’s something I’ve known instinctually for a while, but I never actually thought about it in specific terms.

In case you’re like-adverse, the basic gist of her post is that Matt Forbeck told her the best way to “build a network” in this industry (or, really, any industry) isn’t to think of it as a business network at all, but a collection of friends. And I think that’s really true. While I certainly have a large number of acquaintances and people that I could theoretically pick out of a lineup as part of my social network, the people that I tend to think of when I do business are those that I could probably sit down with and not talk about business at all. I have been blessed to make a number of friends in the fields of fiction, video game development, and RPG design (and there’s a lot of overlap between the three of them).

However, this isn’t quite the same thing as “hire your friends.” Without going into details for a variety of professional and personal reasons, I have had distinctly mixed success with hiring people who were my friends before they were professional peers. It can be hard to keep a professional distance from your friends, especially when deadlines are tight and your friend is feeling the stress. Most of the time, either the friendship or the professional relationship gives way, and in particularly bad situations, it can be both. That being said, it can be done, as my work with such talented friends as Ric Connelly (on Wolfsheim) and Genevieve Podleski (on approximately one trillion projects) has shown.

Becoming friends with other professionals in your industry is different. They’ve been there, and they know what’s expected. You can explain your frustrations and anxieties, and they understand that it’s all under “personal NDA.”1 Usually they find it easier to switch between the “friend” hat or the “professional” hat. I have certainly had frustrating business relationships with friends without changing my personal opinions of them.2

Back to Matt and Monica’s original point, though, there’s a certain “stickiness” to having a friend as a professional contact that no amount of hits on LinkedIn or Facebook can really replicate. Even if it’s someone you share a beer with every year at a con or trade the occasional email with, getting to know the person is the best business investment you can make. And it’s not something you can fake, either — geeks (even professional ones) can sense a faker a mile away. The frustrating part, I suppose, is that there isn’t an easy soundbite or tip to pull from this. It’s not as simple as “make friends with important people.” A lot of it just happens. But certainly things like being a genuine and nice person and thinking about people instead of business opportunities help.

What’s the best way to work with a friend who is also a professional? I’ve found that, like all human relationships, communication is key. If it’s not clear, spell it out. “Speaking as a friend” or “Let me put my business hat on” can save a lot of confusion and frustration later. Little bits like having two email addresses and specifically using one for business and one for personal work (and communicating that to people) can also help. Most of all, though, understand that people can’t 100% separate the two, and that all of the work of keeping each identity distinct is to help people understand how to slant their perceptions, but it doesn’t work in isolation. If my friend, say, takes some redlines badly and gets snarky, I’m going to be mad. I might have to walk away for a few hours and cool off, and trying to be my friend isn’t going to help. But knowing up front that you’re upset professionally and not personally helps me to cool down.

It’s not an exact science. Nothing involving people is. But I do think that being a good person can make you a better professional, and in time your peers might be some of the best friends you’ll ever have.

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  1. Or, as Joseph Carriker calls it, “FriendDA.”
  2. Theoretically the reverse is true, but I find the stress of trying to stay professional with someone whose friendship has soured can make even an easy-going project a chore.